Recently, a U.S study came forward and published scientific results that showed that the source of anxious behaviour in mice could be turned on and off by targeting certain brain cells in the hippocampus, which is known as the brain region involved in regulating emotions.
Following the discovery, scientists were then able to switch off the cells in situations where the mice would otherwise feel anxious as a result, prevent them from eliciting the anxious response of avoiding the dangerous area or running away to a safer area.
Recently, researchers have made yet another massive break-through regarding the mental health concern, with the discovery of a potential new treatment. As we know, the human body is designed to deal with stress in a “fight or flight” type of response that helps your body and mind prepare to either defend yourself from a threat or get away from stressors. Typically, this kind of response reverses once the danger is over, but the over-use of this stress response can also end up causing what we identify as anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are now quite widespread and common in today’s society. The current numbers tally to there being a total of one in four people that have an incident in their lifetime, the severity of which has the potential to range from manageable to debilitating.
So how can we treat anxiety? According to researchers, it’s possible to treat anxiety and decrease it altogether by turning the stress back down to a level where you can use the resources that you are wasting on the flight or fight response to do so on other essential things in whatever situation. In order to do so, the U of A team has since identified a new pathway in the brain that could be an ideal target for a drug to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
“It’s a whole new way of looking at how anxiety can be regulated. It gives us a great deal of hope in terms of finding new avenues for treatment,” said William Colmers, a University of Alberta professor in the Department of Pharmacology.
To do this, Colmers had to first study the stress hormone, a peptide called corticotropin-releasing hormone, and the anti-stress hormone that stops the cycle, called neuropeptide-Y. What’s neuropeptide-y? NPY is a brain chemical messenger that the Colmers lab has studied in relation to epilepsy and appetite. As a result, Colmers is now investigating how the hormone affects a stress-sensitive part of the brain called the amygdala and its action in reversing stress symptoms and responses.
In the past, NPY has shown on numerous occasions that it has the ability to cause an animal to become less stressed, acting as an anxiolytic and reducing anxiety. The response to NPY can be observed by testing if the animal is more willing to interact with other animals it does not know, which can be a stressful experience for both animals and humans alike.
Activity in the output neurons of the amygdala signals fear or danger. Anything that slows their activity down causes anxiolysis (inhibiting anxiety). The stress hormone CRH increases the activity of these neurons, while NPY does the opposite, slowing down the firing of these neurons.
In a collaboration with Janice Urban’s laboratory at Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago, IL, the U of A team tested to see how important it was for someone’s overall behaviour by using a small hairpin RNA, which can prevent the protein from being made by the nerve cell. They then used a tailored virus to get the nerve cells to produce the RNA that stops their normal production of the ion channel. The group found that within a week of inhibiting the protein, the animals were more likely to interact, and the change lasted for at least eight weeks.
While there isn’t a brand new medication that will 100% treat all cases of anxiety with a few doses, we’re at least a lot closer to really identifying and in-turn, producing a new medication, technique or otherwise to assist those around the world suffering with the condition.